"Sustainable development that harmonizes economic, environmental, and social dimensions" Interview with Prof. Munasinghe, Winner of the 2021 Blue Planet Prize

February 22, 2022

The Blue Planet Prize is an international award that is presented to individuals and organizations that have made outstanding contributions in seeking solutions for global environmental problems. Professor Mohan Munasinghe, one of the two winners of the 2021 Blue Planet Prize, is world-famous for conceiving the idea of Sustainomics, a practical framework for implementing sustainable development. He talked about his research achievements, including Sustainomics, which led to his original concepts of 'balanced inclusive green growth' (BIGG), 'millennium consumption goals' (MCGs), and today's SDGs.

Sustainomics is a practical framework for implementing sustainable development, but what exactly is Sustainomics?

Prof.  Mohan Munasinghe (Sri Lanka), winner of the 2021 Blue Planet Prize
Prof. Mohan Munasinghe (Sri Lanka), winner of the 2021 Blue Planet Prize

"Today we have a lot of global issues, such as poverty, inequality, resource shortages, pandemics, and conflicts. Above all, climate change is the ultimate threat, which is making all the other issues worse. These multiple threats are interrelated, but the stakeholders' interests are divergent, and global leadership is weak. We urgently need a comprehensive, robust strategy," said Professor Munasinghe.

He is strongly aware that the present world is both unequal and unsustainable, because sustainability is deeply linked to poverty and inequality. He wants to make the world better through his research.

Professor Munasinghe explained first that humanity's ecological footprint is expanding. We are already overusing planetary ecological resources equivalent to 1.7 Earths, and by the year 2030, we will need the equivalent of two planets to sustain our current way of life. Secondly, it is the richest 20% of the world's population who consume more than 85% of planetary resources, which is 60 to 70 times more than the consumption of the poorest 20% (see Figure 1). Furthermore, one percent of the rich emit 175 times more greenhouse gas per capita than the poorest 10%. Third, we have not been able to eradicate poverty in the past, because when the rich overconsume, there are no resources left to help the poor. These are major issues identified in Sustainomics, and the reason why many promises by world leaders have not been kept , after the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNHDR) was endorsed by all countries in 1948. Today we have the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), but all 17 of these goals were already contained in the original UNHDR -- highlighting that we have not been able to make any real progress for over 70 years!

Figure 1: Unequal world consumption pattern (Provided by Prof. Munasinghe)
Figure 1: Unequal world consumption pattern (Provided by Prof. Munasinghe) *Click to enlarge.

If nothing is done, unrestrained market forces, and lack of ethical and moral values will cause more poverty, inequity, pandemics, environmental problems, and terrorism. Nevertheless, the rich will live comfortably in enclaves, and the poorest will die outside, in misery. Professor Munasinghe saw the urgent need to overcome this impasse, and proposed Sustainomics as a practical solution.

Believing that comprehensive strategies are necessary to deal with complex, interlinked problems, Professor Munasinghe presented "Sustainomics" as a trans-disciplinary framework to make development more sustainable, at the Rio de Janeiro UN Earth Summit in 1992. Sustainomics, has been applied worldwide and taught widely for 30 years. At the start, sustainable development was easier said than done, since most people probably didn't know what to do. Professor Munasinghe showed how to practically apply his Sustainomics framework to promote development sustainably, while he was the Division Chief for Environment Policy at the World Bank in the early 1990s. He was also working for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at this time, using Sustainomics to integrate climate change policies into sustainable development strategy. In 2007, while he was the IPCC Vice Chair (2001-2008), these contributions were recognized when the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

Prof. Munasinghe continued his research on sustainability as Chairman of the Munasinghe Institution of Development (MIND), founded in 2000. MIND has developed many case studies and best practice examples, applying Sustainomics tools. For sustainable development planning, MIND provides practical analytical methods and also engages in public policy advocacy. More recently, Prof. Munasinghe applied Sustainomics to show the balanced inclusive green growth (BIGG) path. In 2019, as Chairman of the Sri Lanka Presidential Expert Commission (PEC), he prepared the national master plan "Sustainable Sri Lanka 2030 Vision," based on the BIGG path.

Sustainomics includes four key principles. The first principle is to make development more sustainable by empowering individuals to be proactive, without waiting for leaders to tell them what to do. It is like 'climbing the mountain', one step at a time. If you think of sustainable development as a mountain peak covered with clouds -- you may not see the peak but you can still keep walking up step by step, and eventually you will reach the top. We should start at a personal level, by eliminating obviously unsustainable practices, like turning off unneeded lights, and water taps that are running. We can plant trees. Such initiatives can be expanded to groups within companies, cities, and eventually at the global level.

The second principle is to harmonize the sustainable development triangle, which includes three key dimensions: economic, environmental and social (Figure 2). Economic prosperity is necessary to help billions of poor people. However, it is equally important to protect nature (including the climate), because economic growth alone is unacceptable if it destroys the environment. We also need an inclusive social framework to reduce poverty and inequality. So the second principle involves balancing and integrating these three different goals.

Figure 2: Sustainable Development Triangle
Figure 2: Sustainable Development Triangle. Click to enlarge.

The SD triangle provides useful analytical insights into both short-term global issues like Covid-19, and longer-term problems like climate change. For example, pandemics are driven by environmental causes, where the pathogen (or zoonosis) jumps from animals to humans due to unsustainable human encroachment of wildlife habitats or livestock management practices. The disease then severely disrupts social and economic systems. Another example involves greenhouse gases that arise from economic activities (including energy use and land use) which disrupt the environment. The resulting climate change pose a severe threat to socio-economic systems, and unfairly penalize the poor who did not cause the problem.

"We need to change the present system in which social and natural capital are being destroyed by economic (or built) capital, including factories, buildings and roads. If we have materialistic growth, private profit-driven extreme market forces, corruption, monopolies, etc., the resulting economic activity is lop-sided, and it can destroy social and natural capital. Economic capital is very big and visible. Natural capital (like air, land and water) is essential for life, but taken for granted. Social capital, such as connections between people and cultural values, are an invisible asset -- so it is undervalued, although it is equally important. For every one of us, human relationships are significant in our daily life. Social capital is the glue that binds society together with values, ethics, and culture," said Professor Munasinghe.

The third principle is to break down and transcend the barriers in our own minds. Mental barrier one includes unsustainable values, like selfishness, corruption and violence which we all have within ourselves. In order to drive sustainable development, it is important to overcome such obstacles and by replacing unsustainable, unethical values. These values, such as greed and selfishness, have led to economic mal-development, overconsumption, poverty, inequality, pollution, and ultimately, the depletion of natural resources. The second mental barrier involves stakeholder cooperation. In order to achieve a common goal, we need to work together, in particular, civil society and business must help government, which is often overwhelmed by current problems. Barrier three is spatial - we need to think expansively of our city, country and whole world, not just our homes or neighbourhoods. The fourth mental barrier is time. We usually focus on today, or maybe next week, but we need to consider the next year, next decade, and even 100 years ahead.

The fourth and last principle of Sustainomics is simple - implement, by moving beyond debates, and taking action. There are many best practice examples and case studies to guide us, showing the application of Sustainomics tools, worldwide.

"BIGG path towards the future, with rich and poor countries working together"

When Sustainomics was presented at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, there was considerable excitement, but the euphoria soon ebbed, when Prof. Munasinghe and his fellow scientists realized that harmonizing the sustainable development triangle was not easy to achieve in real-life. They needed to find practical solutions to convince powerful world leaders and policy-makers to apply the ideas of Sustainomics. This challenge led Prof. Munasinghe to propose the balanced inclusive green growth (BIGG) path, which calls for each country to find a sustainable development path in accordance with its own stage of development. He started by reconciling two goals - economy and environment, instead of three. These two were chosen partly because of the common misconception that environmental protection required the sacrifice of economic growth. His "green economy" approach showed that the two goals were compatible, along a green growth path.

Prof. Munasinghe examined the relationship between environmental harm (measured by GHG emissions per capita), and economic prosperity (measured by GNP per capita), shown in Figure 2. Poor nations are at point A - with low income and low emissions. Rich nations at point C are already unsustainable and exceeding safe ecological limits. He argued that wealthy countries can re-balance economy and environment and reach sustainable point E, by reducing environmental resource use while maintaining their good quality of life. They could use new resource efficient technologies, lifestyle changes, etc., that dematerialize modern economies. This is called green growth. Meanwhile, emerging nations at intermediate point B should learn from the past by innovating. They could go through the green growth (GG) tunnel to also reach point E, without exceeding safe limits -- by avoiding the unsustainable path of rich countries. This is how economy and environment are harmonized.

Figure 3: Economic development and environmental risk. Click to enlarge.

However, Prof. Munasinghe insisted on going beyond green growth, to also satisfy social goals. In the second step, green growth was further improved by adding pro-poor, inclusive and inequality-reducing policies, to create the balanced inclusive green growth (BIGG) path. This process fully harmonized the sustainable development triangle: economy, environment and society. Furthermore, the same BIGG path is generally available for other resources like energy, food and water, etc. This path increases resilience and helps us solve multiple sustainable development problems simultaneously, including poverty, hunger, energy, water, health, education, gender, etc., within the holistic framework of 17 SDG.

Meanwhile, in 2010 Prof. Munasinghe had also proposed the concept of Millennium Consumption Goals (MCGs) based on Sustainomics. The MCG would require richer people in the world who consume most of global resources to adopt more sustainable consumption patterns, and thereby free up resources to help billions of poor. The MCG concept was later incorporated into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG12 - Responsible Consumption and Production).

Let's think about BIGG and SDG12 from the perspective of food (see Figure 4). One third of world food production is lost or wasted while 800 million people are starving. In the US, about half the food is wasted in the home, and in Europe, 30% is wasted at home.

Figure 4: Affluent Western Family and Poor African Family (Provided by Prof. Munasinghe)
Figure 4: Affluent Western Family and Poor African Family (Provided by Prof. Munasinghe) Click to enlarge.

"A typical western family (shown in Figure 4) can have the same affluent lifestyle, even after they start consuming more sustainably - e.g., by giving up wasteful packaging and wasting less food. This is the BIGG part of transformation which is focusing on reduced consumption. This sustainability transformation need not be expensive or does not require extra spending -- maybe they can even save money while maintaining a very good quality of life. On the other hand, the poor African family needs not reduce consumption. They should actually increase consumption sustainably along the BIGG path, because it is unsustainable and unethical for them to live in poverty," Professor Munasinghe said.

Provided we begin now, the problems can be solved. I encourage young people to play a key role in creating a BIGG path.

Professor Munasinghe
Professor Munasinghe

While fostering practical activities and presenting strategies for balanced inclusive green growth of the world, Professor Munasinghe has high expectations of young people, who will play a prominent role in the future, addressing the problems facing humanity. He feels that the youth of the world with their new knowledge, innovative methods, and advanced technologies (like digital technology, biotechnology, social media, and so on), will find sustainable solutions to complex global problems.

"We have multiple global problems, which are serious challenges. Although the issues are complicated, these problems can be solved, provided we begin taking action now using the concepts of Sustainomics and BIGG. We can to transform a risky "business as usual scenario" into a stable and safe future. I encourage young people to play a key role in creating a new 21st century BIGG path for sustainable development in Japan and the whole world," stated Prof. Munasinghe.

Finally, he gave us valuable personal advice to show how young people should harmonize themselves before they try to harmonize the planet earth.

"Global sustainable development is important, including economic prosperity, a green environment, and a peaceful, just and inclusive society. But before achieving this, we need to harmonize our own personal sustainability triangle - balancing first our work and career; second our health, fitness and environment; and third our social interactions with family, friends and community. We have to harmonize ourselves from within to become well-balanced, ethical, contented and compassionate human beings, before we can harmonize the planet outside us" he said.

This article is based on a video interview with Professor Munasinghe, which was released on the commendation special website for the 2021 Blue Planet Prize. Please watch and enjoy his video interview as well.
Special website for the 2021 Blue Planet Prize: https://www.af-info.or.jp/en/blueplanet/special2021/


Professor Mohan Munasinghe (Sri Lanka)
Founder Chairman, Munasinghe Institute for Development (MIND)

Professor Munasinghe pioneered the integrative, trans-disciplinary 'Sustainomics' framework, which views development issues from environmental, social, and economic perspectives. Innovative concepts like 'balanced inclusive green growth (BIGG)' and 'millennium consumption goals (MCGs)' emerged from Sustainomics. BIGG calls for each country to take a sustainable development path in accordance with its development stage, while the MCGs ask the affluent, who consume most global output, to adopt consumption goals to reduce the burden on the planet. He has been engaging in practical activities for over five decades, through his non-profit research institute (MIND) and other world organizations, to implement these concepts globally. He is one of the two winners of the 2021 Blue Planet Prize.

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